When Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer died in 1675, he left his wife and children in debt. It’s believed that he painted just 30-some paintings in his lifetime. Once that lifetime was over, he was almost completely forgotten until the 19th century.
But by the 1940s, Vermeer’s legacy had been completely retrofitted. When one of his rare paintings changed hands, it was often for a king’s ransom. In 1942, Nazi bigwig Hermann Göring bought Vermeer’s celebrated, newly discovered Christ With the Adulteress for a staggering 1.6 million guilders—the most money paid at the time for a painting ever.
And therein begins the strangest story of Vermeer’s work—nearly three centuries after his death.
It’s 1945 now. World War II is over, and Göring is in prison. All of those in Vermeer’s native Netherlands who collaborated with the Nazis are being rounded up, too, with many being executed.
Captain Joseph Piller, a Jewish Dutchman working for the Canadian army, is helping to bring many of these sympathizers to post-war justice, specifically in the world of art. When soldiers find Göring’s stash of art in an Austrian salt mine, including Christ With the Adultress, they also find the man who facilitated the sale: Han van Meegeren. Piller believes that van Meegeren deserves to be punished for his role in the sale—unless, of course, the art dealer can point him toward bigger fish to fry.
“This is your chance at redemption,” Pillar tells him. “Or perhaps, more importantly, survival.”
But van Meegeren wants to tell Pillar a different story—not how he sold looted art to the Nazis, but how he swindled them. Vermeer died in debt in the 17th century. Everyone knows that. But van Meegeren suggests that, even so, the master is still painting today.
The Nazis are likely the 20th century’s worst bogeymen, so anyone who pushes back against them will have at least a few gold stars on his or her ledger.
Joseph Piller—often called Joe here—is one such a steely crusader, a man who’s determined to bring some weasels to justice. He’s obviously not after the worst of Nazi war criminals, but Netherlanders who aided them, betraying their country and undermining its resistance. But he’s determined to protect the wrongly accused, too. And when he gradually comes to believe that van Meegeren is innocent (after a fashion), Joe does his best to protect the man.
Van Meegeren’s motives are less clear, and honestly less pure. But he does say, “I believe every Fascist deserves to be swindled,” and he did indeed do a number on Göring.
Both Joe and his wife were part of the Dutch resistance. But while Joe was off fighting, his wife was spying—cozying up to Nazi officers to learn secrets that she could funnel to the resistance movement. “I risked my life every day to survive, Joe,” she tells him. And he knows it’s true. Still, her work involved certain compromises, which we’ll get into below.
Many of the paintings we see are inherently religious: Works with such names as Christ With the Adulteress, The Last Supper I and Jesus Among the Doctors all take prominent places in the film, and we see each of them repeatedly. (We briefly see some other Christian-tinged works of art, including stained glass windows, too.)
Though van Meegeren doesn’t seem particularly religious, he does invoke the divine often. He describes how, as an artist, he had a burst of inspiration one night and “snatched perfection from the gods.” He observes that paintings are practically eternal, saying that they “will live longer than the mountains. And that, my friend, is as close to God as you get.” He says that Göring was interested in the painting of Christ With the Adultress because the Jesus in the painting mirrored some sort of German ideal, and it gave Göring “his very own Nazi Jesus.”
Joe is Jewish, and we see him retrieve from hiding symbols of his faith. (They’re kept in a box with a Star of David on it, and as he puts the candle holders on the dinner table, he explains to his young son how they work.) His faith earns him the scorn—sometimes veiled, sometimes not—of some fellow countrymen. At one point, a museum curator tells Joe how sorry he is about what the Germans did to his people. “My people?” Joe says. “Aren’t we all Dutch?”
Vermeers are described as the “holy grails of the 20th century,” and van Meegeren is describes as a “raging narcissist and a cunning devil.” A man takes a swig of alcohol and calls it “Satan’s p-ss.” Someone makes a reference to crucifixion.
Van Meegeren is both an artist and a hedonist, and both descriptors land a prominent place in this section.
When Joe and his assistant, Dekker, first visit van Meegeren in his palatial townhome, Dekker ogles a realistic painting depicting a woman fully nude. (We see her from the front.) In flashback, van Meegeren paints a nude model: We see both the painting and the model, catching glimpses of the side of her breast and backside. Other nude paintings or sculptures are seen on screen, too. In court, van Meegeren’s modern-leaning paintings are described as having an almost “pornographic nature” to them.
Van Meegeren is also known for his parties, and viewers gain entrance to one where women cavort in an assortment of revealing lingerie. (One attendee is bare-breasted, and she sits on an appreciative man’s lap.)
Van Meegeren is well-known for sleeping around, and his current lover is married. “Han thinks that deep down, all men fantasize of their wives being seduced by other men, or women,” she says. (She also tells Joe how liberating it is to model nude—to “lay yourself bare and have someone paint you.”) When Joe confesses that he’s having marital problems, van Meegeren tells him that marriage is an unnatural state, anyway. He himself is divorced, but he, his ex-wife and his lover all seem surprisingly chummy.
Joe’s problems with his wife stem from her time as a spy. While she’s never talked about what she had to do to get cozy with the Nazis, Joe suspects that she was an SS officer’s lover for a time. It triggers a separation that both believe might become permanent. After she’s gone, Joe has a dalliance with his assistant, Minna. The two kiss and go up to her bedroom. But when Joe comes across a picture of Minna’s husband (who died in the resistance), the character of the evening changes. Joe spends the night and sleeps on Minna’s bed, but the two simply sleep—both fully clothed and with her resting her head on Joe’s shoulder.
We see a couple of people executed in a public square via firing squad. In one such instance, when the bullets strike, blood flies.
Joe’s assistant, Dekker, was hired in part as a heavy: He gets into several confrontations, some of which turn into fights. In one unseen melee, a bloodied Dekker apologizes for losing. There were simply, he says, too many to hold off.
We hear talk of suicide, and one man attempts it with a gun. Joe and Dekker smash through a wooden gate. Guns are brandished. Threats are thrown down.
Three f-words and an s-word, along with uses of “d–n,” “h—” and “p-ss.” God’s name is paired with “d–n” three times.
Van Meegeren is a prodigious drinker, and his townhouse is filled with what Dekker calls “world class hooch.” He says that he needs to drink whiskey when he’s inspired to paint. When Joe hauls him away to prison—forcing van Meegeren to set down his half-drunk glass of liquor—Dekker follows behind and finished the glass.
Dekker and Joe both get drunk, and it’s suggested that Dekker has a bit of a drinking problem. We hear that van Meegeren’s wartime parties were popular because of their “free booze and free drugs and easy women.” Van Meegeren talks about his time as a young artist in Paris, when he “drank too much, slept with too few women” and gradually went insane.
The art dealer and several other characters smoke.
The movie takes place during a time of transition from wartime to peacetime, and Joe’s military job is at odds with the incoming Dutch civilian authorities. When he believes that van Meegeren could be the key to a larger story, Joe actually breaks the guy out of prison and transfers him to a secret locale, so the civilian authorities won’t find him.
Honestly, this isn’t too hard to figure out, but van Meegeren—once called a “third-rate artist”—actually churned out a number of new paintings that the art community thought were genuine Vermeers. As such, he did swindle Göring out of a great deal of money. But to do so, he lied: He mastered a number of aging techniques and misrepresented the true author of these works to lots of people—not just the Nazis. And as such, he likely bilked some honest (albeit very rich) people out of a great deal of cash, too.
[Spoiler Warning] While van Meegeren suggests that he either hates fascism or is, at the very least, apathetic to it, some revelations cast serious doubt on that assertion: Accusations of him colluding with Hitler’s Third Reich might’ve been closer to the truth than van Meegeren might suggest.
The Last Vermeer is based on the true story of Han van Meegeren, who went to trial in 1947 for colluding with the Nazis and was instead convicted of being a pretty remarkable forger—painting a bevy of fake Vermeers that the art world took as the real thing. He became something of a folk hero in the Netherlands, and his classic Dutch facsimiles are now being shown in galleries around the world. Van Meegeren’s work is so popular now that his style is now subject to its own forgeries (including some by his very own son).
His is an inherently fascinating story, and the movie comes across as half whodunit, half courtroom drama.
But it can also rub the wrong way, too.
Van Meegeren’s Vermeers—at least the one we see most prominently here—are deeply pious works, reflecting a deeply pious Golden Age painter. Meanwhile, the real painter is a world-class hedonist: He never met a bottle of high-class whiskey he didn’t want to drink, never met a woman—married or otherwise—that he didn’t want to bed.
We see evidence of his bohemianism throughout the film—evidence that perhaps the movie uses to keep us off our footing in regards to the forger. Still, the content pushes what could’ve easily been a PG-13 film into R-rated territory, and thus off many a viewer’s must-see list.
The movie’s version of Han van Meegeren seems to like to shock people. And, years after his own death, he still just might.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.